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Monday, March 7, 2022

On Juxtaposition II

I've been poking around "film editing youtube" off and on the last few days, and I wasn't even 100% ignorant of that craft before! I am now marginally less ignorant. I have noted a theme which seems salient to my current thinking about photography.

In cutting together a scene in a film, one of the traditional goals is to present the viewer with a consistent set of cues about the spatial relationships in the scene. If Bob and Alice are facing one another, talking, you might film them from one side. Bob is on the left, Alice to the right. You must never ever just cut to a shot where this is reversed, where the viewpoint has moved to the other side. This reads as Bob and Alice switching positions without explanation. Instead, you interpose a snippet of the viewpoint moving around, perhaps passing behind Alice, to cue the viewer that the viewpoint has moved.

Similarly, you might film an actor looking into the distance, cut in a shot of a mountain, and then back to the actor for some emotional reaction. You could as well use a distant tree, or a distant person, a shot down a long road, etc. What you cannot do is cut in a closeup of a strawberry. The actor is looking into the distance, not at something close. The mountain (tree, road) shot shows us what the actor is "looking" at.

If you instead start with the actor peering at something very close, and cut in the mountain, upon viewing the result you might perceive the mountain as a miniature set very close to the actor. It would either not work at all, or be rather weird.

The point of all this is that in watching a movie scene, we imaginatively build the world of the scene in our minds. Alice is in the corner, Bob is sitting in the chair, and John is by the window. The events unfold in ways that make sense. Bob does not simply appear next to John, we are cued by a scrap of film that shows him getting out of the chair, and we fill in Bob's motion without effort.

We do not need to be taught this, it appears to be both unconscious and instinctive. We build a percept of the scene out of the cues and details we're shown, and that percept is emphatically not what's on the screen, nor indeed (usually) what actually occurred in front of the cameras.

While this discussion might not be perfect, and I suppose it might even be completely wrong, I do think that it captures some of what filmmakers believe about how film works.

Note that there is a fairly good analogy with my theory of how we perceive photographs. We imaginatively build a little world from which the photo was drawn, and in a sense inhabit that world. We do this instinctively, without having to be taught.

At this point let us cast our minds back to Gordon Parks' photo, "American Gothic." Specifically, let's think about the flag, the subject, Ella Watson, and the possibility of a symbolic relationship between them.

Something distinctly different is going on here. Our primitive animal response to the photo places us inside it, and we imagine up the space Ella Watson occupies, the broom, the mop, the flag. We imagine up some notion of what she feels, we imagine up the flag hanging behind her. You do this, I do this, the ability to do this seems to cross cultural boundaries. We might guess that it's biological, or nearly so.

The symbolism of the flag is not biological, it is emphatically cultural.

The fact that the flag is there in the frame, and that Watson is there in the frame is pretty clearly deliberate. It is formal enough that we're unlikely to take it as an accident. This is also cultural, not biological. Our sensation that the two objects were placed deliberately in that relationship is cultural, and if not actually conscious, nearly so.

Call the the unconscious/biological imaginative space-building process the literal response, and the semi-conscious grasping at symbolic relationships the analogical response.

I have no theory as to whether there are in fact different processes that happen to kind of overlap, or if they are two ends of a spectrum. I'm not even sure if the literal/analogical split represents a particularly good separation of processes into different kinds. They do seem to be actual things, however that plays out.

I submit that the juxtaposition of two separate photos almost invariably, almost entirely, works on the analogical response. While sometimes we do look at the two pictures to see if they're different angles of the same space, usually they are not, and usually that's not the point. Normally we see a picture of an oak tree, and a picture of a pile of paper on a desk, and read out through some process akin to metaphor an indictment of neoliberal capitalism's wickedness; wickedness revealed by capitalism's insistence on grinding oak trees into paper. Or whatever.

There is no imaginative world building, no unconscious mapping out of a physical space which contains both photographs simultaneously. The unconscious response, I maintain, operates on the two photos separately but finds no traction in the combination of the two. This suggests that any response to a sequence of photos is going to be operating in the region of the analogical response.

That response is distinctly cultural and to a degree conscious.

Let's revisit the photo of Watson in a little more detail.

The literal response imagines the space, the woman, her expression. It files her emotion under some label. The flag is on the wall behind her, just as the broom is (likely?) in her hand, and the mop behind her. The literal response does not particularly note the graphical relationship of the flag to the woman that is so evident in the two dimensional frame. In the same way we do not unconsciously think of Alice on the left and Bob on the right in the dialog scene, but rather we place them in the space more or less independent of viewpoint. Alice is, rather, there and Bob is there and that's all there is to it. The right/left relationship requires that we exit the world of the movie, step outside the movie, and look instead at the frame.

The analogical response, at least with regard to the symbolism of the flag, depends on the in-frame relationship. We are, to an extent, trying to guess at Parks' intention here. You can gabble on about the death of the author all you like, but the truth is that seriously grappling with the abstract meaning of a work of art tends to involve trying to work out what the author is on about. The sensation that the flag was placed in the frame above and left of Watson is absolutely an author-based theory, and that is the underpinning of any notion that this means anything. The symbolic relationship between flag and Watson is a proposal made by Parks, deliberately, and the mechanism is their placement in the two-dimensional picture.

I suspect that the analogical response to a photo works on some sort of superposition of the two-dimensional frame with the three-dimensional percept that we build through the literal response. The flag is simultaneously behind Watson to her right and on the wall, and above-left of her in the frame.

At any rate, whether points on a single spectrum or two distinct mechanisms, the literal and analogical responses are certainly entangled in the middle, and not particularly easy to sort out. We could at least hypothesize reasonably that literal aligns roughly with "stuff that crosses cultural boundaries" and analogical with "stuff that doesn't" but this probably isn't quite accurate. This notion provides at best a hypothetical method for distinguishing, since we're unlikely to be assembling a vast cross-cultural focus group to sort these things out in practice.

None of this, to my eye, leads to any particularly actionable conclusions. I'm not seriously indicting any specific approach, or debunking any specific theory, although I might lean that way. I do think it's useful to consider that there are at least these two modes of response. To suppose that the allegory you have lovingly crafted in your photograph (or your sequence) will cross cultural boundaries, will be unconsciously legible, is likely false. Only some people will "get" it, and they'll likely have to work at it. Worse, it'll be especially subject to interpretation and to alternate meanings.

At the same time, the spatial facts you've indicated, that you've cued, will likely be pretty legible to anyone, and nobody will have to consciously work for them.

The gaze and expression of Ella Watson's face will likely be judged unconsciously. We'll see, and we'll file her emotion under some label, without thinking of it at all. We'll do this as part of the same process that unconsciously perceives the space she occupies as large, as high, as cold. The symbolism of the flag over Watson's shoulder is not going to read universally, it is going to be read through a lens of culture, it is likely to be perceived and read at a conscious level, and its meaning will be definitely malleable.

All that said, I think we do currently suffer from some muddled thinking in this specific area. I think that quite a few makers of photobooks lump all these things together, they imagine that their dense symbolism is of essentially the same order as the simple physical arrangement of objects in the frame.

This tends, I suspect, to lead people astray.